Public opinion will continue to trail Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein over the politics of the keris but he is on solid ground in Umno and is well on his way to joining the vice-presidents` circle, going by the response he has been getting at the party`s annual division meetings.
Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein arrived for the Putrajaya Umno Youth division meeting on Monday night to be greeted by a formal reception of traditional Malay silat amid the super-contemporary landscape of the capital city.
He himself was a mix of old and new. He wore a Johor style baju Melayu, velvet songkok and a chunky, tech watch. On his other wrist was a bright-orange wristband, the peace symbol that he has been wearing over the last couple of years.
It was the first Umno Youth meeting he was presiding over in Umno`s musim politik (season of politics) – that period before the general assembly when divisions hold their AGM.
It is a chance for people to meet and network; issues will be aired and, of course, there will be plenty of politicking.
Hishammuddin felt rather at home that evening, particularly given that Putrajaya Youth chief Zaki Zahid had been his special officer when he was Youth and Sports Minister.
Zaki, whose unlined, baby-faced looks belie his workaholic ways, is now special officer to the Prime Minister.
Hishammuddin also decided to take the bull by the horns that evening. He told his audience that the keris would remain a feature at the Umno Youth assembly in November.
“People have asked whether I will continue to use the keris. Why wait till the party general assembly for an answer? I want to tell all of you now that I will still hold up the keris and kiss it because it is part of our culture,” he said as his audience applauded.
The use of the keris was as controversial as the ultra-Malay rhetoric that made up much of the debate at the party`s annual gathering last year.
Hishammuddin has little choice but to go ahead with using the keris. He is, as they say, caught between a rock and a hard place.
This will be the third year that the keris will feature at the Youth assembly. Umno Youth politicians are apparently puzzled as to why it had been so controversial last year whereas it was hardly an issue when first introduced in 2005.
“I was amazed by the fuss. If they had a shaolin demo at an MCA or Gerakan meeting, we would be okay with it,” said Umno Youth secretary Datuk Rahman Dahlan.
In these modern times, adds Zaki, the keris is but a symbol of Malay culture. “Why is there this baggage over what the keris stands for?”
On hindsight, the controversy was less about the keris than the way the entire Umno general assembly unfolded. The rhetoric over the Malay Agenda last year was so extreme at points that many Malaysians watching were alarmed.
They thought Umno would grow more Malaysian as the country matured but what they saw was an Umno that seemed more radically Malay than ever.
Pictures of the keris being thrust in the air captured the public`s imagination in a negative way. It sort of epitomised all those expressions of ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) at the assembly.
Perhaps what many in the party had not realised was that the political landscape outside Umno had changed over the years, hence the wave of opinion over the event.
Hishammuddin and his deputy Khairy Jamaluddin took the brunt of public opinion because people had looked up to them as Malay models for the future.
Both are men of privilege, highly educated, cosmopolitan and erudite. People saw them as white knights who could bring Umno to a new level.
Said a political insider: “Everything came to a head last year – religious issues, the Mahathir crisis, economic expectations and then the Umno debates and the keris. It was an unfortunate combination of events. Yet if you look objectively at Hishammuddin, he is one of the most rational Umno Youth leaders we have ever had.”
The irony of the keris episode was that the idea was conceived in rather youthful enthusiasm shortly before the 2005 Umno Youth assembly.
Rahman recalled that a group of them had brainstormed to come up with “something different” for that year`s assembly. They liked the way the ceremonial mace was paraded into Parliament at each new sitting and it was decided that a keris would do nicely for the Youth wing.
“We wanted something to bring back tradition to the movement. Believe me, we never thought about it being a symbol of Malay supremacy. It was a simple and innocent idea with no hidden agenda,” said Rahman.
Hishammuddin will have to use all his talent, experience and charm to win the external ground.
His supporters are urging those who are still upset about the keris incident to consider the fact that as Education Minister, he has probably done more for Chinese schools than any of his predecessors. There have been only nine new Chinese schools in the last 50 years, four of which were approved by Hishammuddin.
He has also made important commitments to Chinese education and that has won praise from the powerful Chinese schools lobby known as the Dong Jiao Zong.
But whatever the opinion outside Umno, he is on solid ground within the party. Members see him as a tested politician who is ready to defend Malay rights and who has grown from one government portfolio to another in the last 12 years. They say he has earned his stripes.
He held the movement together through the tumult of the Anwar Ibrahim sacking and, as one Malay professional pointed out, despite his privileged upbringing he has been able to relate to the mixed bag of people who make up the Youth wing.
He is also one of those public figures whose personal life has been quite above reproach.
Party people are unanimous that he is vice-president material and perhaps more than that if he serves well as a vice-president.
Feedback from the ground about his imminent move up the Umno ladder has been excellent and Hishammuddin knows that.
For a number of years, he had refused to address queries about his political future, often telling those who asked that “this is not the time to talk about it”.
But last week, his close aides indicated that if people ask them about it during this round of division meetings, they would affirm that their boss is ready to move on when the party polls take place next year.
Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob had his finger on the pulse when he opened Hishammuddin`s Semborong division meeting last Sunday.
The home ground lapped up his take on the future party line-up, which was done in his trademark style – unpretentious and in colloquial Malay.
Adnan said: “Datuk Hisham ingat pesanan orang tua. Itu elok sebab saya pun sudah tua. Insya Allah saya nampak selepas Pak Lah ini, Najib. Tak nampak orang lain. Lepas itu, Datuk Hisham. Mungkin KJ atau lain-lain selepas itu, perwakilan yang akan pilih.
“Tetapi pemimpin ini Allah yang pilih. Bukan sedap-sedap kita nak, tak nak. Datuk Onn pun presiden Umno tetapi Tunku jadi PM. Tun Mahathir kena buang parti, masuk balik jadi PM. Pak Lah keluar kabinet tetapi kini jadi PM. Anwar handsome, cakap pasal hadith, tetapi bila kena uji jatuh juga. Itulah kerja Allah.”
Translated, it goes like this: “It`s good Datuk Hisham takes advice from seniors like me. God willing, after Pak Lah it`s Najib. I don`t see anyone else. Then Hisham. Maybe after that KJ or others, the delegates can pick.
“But God decides. It`s not for us to want this and that. Datuk Onn was president but Tunku became PM. Dr Mahathir was expelled from the party, he returned and became PM. Pak Lah left the Cabinet, now he is PM. Anwar was handsome, fluent in the hadith but he failed when tested. It`s all up to God.”
One of Hishammuddin`s challenges as Umno Youth leader has been the dilemma of having to straddle the divide of being a Malaysian leader and yet not losing touch with the Malay core, the mainspring of his political mandate.
“If I were him, I would go ahead with the keris but continue to explain to those outside that it is a cultural symbol,” said Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, a former Youth chief and now Minister in the PM`s Department.
Source: www.thestar.com (9 Juli 2007)